The Summer of the Fried Green Tomato

Although I love making fried green tomatoes at home, I'm not that good at it. But when summer gets in full swing, I begin to crave the things like mad. And luckily, this year, an increasing number of Houston restaurants are incorporating the Southern delicacy into their menus -- and in increasingly creative ways. I've been saying it for about a month now: This should be the summer of the fried green tomato here in Houston.

I love the versatility of fried green tomatoes, the way they can be incorporated into a dish or stand alone as an already clever pairing of flavors: tart and barely sweet and salty all at once, with a crisp first bite and an easy finish. At Radical Eats and Greatfull Taco, the tomatoes are treated in this way, with only the simplest of ingredients to buttress the summery flavors.

Greatfull Taco's Viola Lee has become a fast favorite of mine, with a simple slaw of cabbage and carrots atop the chunks of fried green tomatoes wrapped in dual corn tortillas. Under the tomatoes, a vibrant swipe of garlic-serrano mayonnaise. The heat bolsters those tart-sweet chunks of tomatoes, just as the vinegared red cabbage does in Radical Eats' fried green tomato tacos (which will soon be available full-time at its new storefront on Fulton).

But as much as I enjoy these simple renditions, it's the more playful creations around town that have piqued my interest.

It's a given that upscale-casual Southern strongholds like Zelko Bistro and Haven would have fried green tomatoes on the menu (although, frankly, I'm more enamored of Haven's wonderfully in-tune grilled okra right now). Take Canopy's crab cake over fried green tomatoes with a scallion remoulade and jalapeño chimichurri: It's comfortably accessible, both taste-wise and price-wise, as you can order a small portion for $12 or a large plate of the good stuff for $20.

Over at Tony Mandola's, you can get your fried green tomatoes topped with a different kind of Gulf seafood for less than $10: fresh shrimp and a spicy remoulade. As with Canopy's jalapeño chimichurri, the heat works as a counterbalance to the tartness of the tomato and the oil in the breading.

And at Backstreet Cafe, you can get a combination of both worlds: Its fried green tomatoes are topped with a crab remoulade for $10. Syd Kearney at 29-95 is a fan, too. I keep clicking over to the site just to look at her photo of the tomatoes, all in a tidy row with tender curls of watercress peeking out from underneath.

But the tomato dishes that excite me the most this summer are the ones that are modernizing the more traditional pairings of seafood and/or spice.

At TQLA, Chef Tommy Birdwell has created a salad for his summer menu of fried green tomatoes and jumbo lump crab meat with salsa fresca, crunchy sticks of jicama and a sweet pepper aioli. Of course, he smartly left the other fried green favorite on the menu as well: as a side item to the pumpkin-crusted salmon entree that I still think about to this day, the tomatoes fried with a crunchy cornmeal batter and livened up with a tequila-lime butter sauce that matched them point for point with tartness and fatty flavor.

And at Beaver's, I recently enjoyed the best fried green tomato incarnation I've had so far this summer, when I ordered an innocuous-sounding fried green tomato appetizer without really noticing the fine print beneath it (I was more focused on the fresh melon and Brazos feta salad I was getting along with it, truth be told).

What came out reminded me of the reason that Beaver's -- even with Chef Jonathan Jones thoroughly occupied with transforming El Patio into Xuco Xicana -- is still the most keenly creative and inventive Southern-fried kitchen in town.

The thick green tomatoes had been cut open and stuffed with housemade pork sausage, with that earnest, wide-eyed flavor of fresh-ground pork that hasn't seen any age on it or smoke through its flesh. The sausage-stuffed tomatoes had then been lightly fried and smothered with the scooped-out flesh of the green tomatoes themselves and a slightly smoky red tomato sauce; both were topped with crunchy bites of bacon. Fried green tomatoes inside out and upside down: There was no heat to balance the tartness, no simple seafood pairing. It was aggressive and bombastic and swaggering with carnivorous glee and it worked perfectly, because it never lost sight of that key ingredient in spite of all its machismo. This was a fried green tomato dish that did away with any notion of the vegetables as just a simple side item or light appetizer.

Of course, if you're trying to keep it on the lighter side this summer, there's always the pickled green tomatoes that pack a Sour Patch Kids-like punch from Haven. But as for me, I will relish my fried green tomatoes.

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